A fan's observations on the Washington Nationals, from across the virtual divide.

Phillies: The New Cowboys?

I live far away from Washington now, and so I am sure it happens to me a lot more often than it would in DC. I’ll be walking down the street, and I’ll see that dreaded blue star. Perhaps on someone’s hat, perhaps on a bumper sticker. Every once in a while, on a stadium jacket. My thoughts immediately turn to Tom Landry and Roger Staubach. Clint Longley sneaks in there occasionally, too… and the hackles stand up. A visceral dislike for the Cowboys is one of the hallmark traits of a Washingtonian.

But rivalry requires reciprocity, and the Redskins haven’t held up their part of the bargain as of late. Other teams in other sports have drawn their share of ire from Washington fans – back in the early 1980′s, when the Capitals experienced their first surge into respectability, the Flyers were always the most hated team to come to the Capital Centre.

Last night, we may have witnessed the beginning of the Nats first real rivalry.

The building blocks have been falling into place for a while – The famous 11 PM start to a rain-delayed Nats-Phillies game, ending in a Nats win back in 2006. John Lannan hitting Chase Utley and breaking his hand last year. Kyle Kendrick’s chin music to Ryan Zimmerman, followed the next at bat by a home run – These are just a few examples.

But things changed last night. It isn’t often that one gets to see a straight steal of home (whether successful or not). But it wasn’t just that Utley tried to steal home, but rather, that he turned himself into a human projectile, and endangered both himself and Jesus Flores in the process. The collision resulted in a very scary and probably season-ending injury to Flores, and taken in the context of the apparently-escalating tensions between the two teams, perhaps there was more at stake than just scoring a run.

Chico Harlan reported in Nationals Journal about the clubhouse reaction to the play at the plate with Utley and Jesus Flores. I found the comments to be rather tame. In Chico’s online chat today, I asked him about whether there was more to the comments than meets the eye, to which he said, maybe, and maybe not.

I think there’s bad blood. The kind that transcends seasons. The kind that makes almost-meaningless games a lot more meaningful. The Clint Longley kind of bad blood.

Interleague play and Beltway Series don’t make for a rivalry, especially between two second-tier teams. The Washington-Baltimore rivalry was a lot more intense in 1971 than it is in 2008, and until the Nats plays the Orioles in October, it is going to stay that way. A late-night loss in front of 200 fans, the loss of a star player to a broken hand on an HBP, a 23 year-old third basemen getting knocked down one inning and going yard the next AB and a straight steal of home that looked more like breaking up the wedge on a kickoff than a stolen base attempt – those may be the birth of a rivalry, because the players feel it… not just the fans.

Of course, I didn’t need any help disliking the Phillies anyway.